|Mel Evans/Associated Press|
|Offseason acquisition DeMeco Ryans has instantly become an integral piece of the Philadelphia Eagles' defense.|
PHILADELPHIA -- First, the feeling was different.
On the field with time waning, the members of the Philadelphia Eagles' defense could look around and understand that it wasn't like last year. No longer were they a jigsaw puzzle that went unsolved -- pieces bent, scattered or lost -- until it was too late.
"You start to get more belief," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said, "and you start to play better."
Then, the results were different.
When they absolutely had to have it, up one point with 1:55 to go and the Ravens taking the ball on the 20-yard line, Philadelphia's suddenly fierce defensive unit didn't even allow Baltimore to cross the 50. The ever-changing, always-charging, wide-nine front line forced quarterback Joe Flacco into a woeful 2-for-7 final drive, allowing just 21 yards in the air. The Eagles exerted themselves with a suffocating attack, making it seem like they were playing with 14 defenders.
"We're headed there," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who immediately became a leader upon arriving from the Houston Texans in an offseason trade. "We still have things to clean up, but to close the game out like this, it just continues to give you confidence we can get it done. Keep watching, stay tuned, we'll see how good we can be. Just two games in, it's looking up."
The offense will get the headlines. The defense provides the foundation.
Offensive line coach-turned defensive coordinator Juan Castillo is no longer under fire. Now, he's the mastermind behind the creative scheme that flummoxed the Ravens' offensive line with the threat of blitzing -- something that became more valuable than actually blitzing. It looked like Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda, unsure of what was coming, had his head on a perpetual swivel.
Those high-profile names from a year ago -- Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- are now part of a squad that allowed Flacco to complete just eight of his 25 second-half passes for 140 yards. They combined with sterling pass-coverage newcomers like Kendricks and cornerback Brandon Boykin to clamp down and give the nine-deep defensive line a chance to harass.
The Eagles are now 2-0, authors of consecutive one-point wins thanks in part to late-game heroics by quarterback Michael Vick. This time, Vick scored on a one-yard plunge with 1:55 left to set up his defense's last stand. And stand it did, helping atone for four offensive turnovers.
The departure from last year is stark.
"We had some time where we were like, 'Man, what's going on?' " said Rodgers-Cromartie, who helped hold Ravens wideouts to 85 total receiving yards. "Especially with the guys that were on the roster. You look at names and stuff, you'd tend to think we'd play better. But this defense, this year, it's been a lot more fun. You can see we're flying around, stopping them."
Those three second-half leads the Eagles blew at the start of last season? Nah. Old news. Now, they grab late leads and hold them.
Instead of just being a bunch of individuals running around on a field, the front four routinely applied pressure on Sunday and the back end forced Flacco to hold the ball slightly longer than he wanted to. They worked in tandem. Flacco, on the heels of an awe-inspiring smackdown of the Cincinnati Bengals, posted a 66.8 passer rating.
Some new additions have helped, notably Ryans. He is widely credited as a leader, a do-it-all veteran voice who has kept everyone in line. This unit looks more secure, is committing fewer mistakes, and Ryans is a big reason for that.
"He's got all the qualifications you look for when you're looking for a leader," Castillo said, "a guy to run the defense."
Of course, Ryans had a monster day with a sack, a leaping interception and seven tackles. He also had plenty of help, with Castillo spinning the dial and ordering up a healthy dose of blitzing. The Eagles also had the luxury of utilizing Trent Cole, Jason Babin and the rest of their merry band of pass rushers to get after Flacco.
It all adds up to a gritty 2-0 start for the Eagles. Yup, a new year.
"We don't want to be waiting at the end like last year," Castillo said.
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
The Cardinals have a D -- really
Monday morning in New England, the focus is on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the offensive line and the health of star tight end Aaron Hernandez. But really, the Patriots will be fine. Even if it takes Hernandez a month to return from his ankle injury, Bill Belichick's team will eventually roll along.
All offseason, it's been about Kevin Kolb vs. John Skelton, a quarterback competition that consumed us. With Skelton injured, Kolb earned the starting nod against New England and looked completely average -- connecting on 15 of 27 attempts for 140 yards and a touchdown.
That is good enough.
What we learned on Sunday is that the Cardinals' defense has game. And that stellar special-teams play counts, too.
In the first half, the Cards' D held the vaunted Pats' offense to just 129 yards, recording three sacks and a highlight-reel interception by cornerback Patrick Peterson. A blocked punt set up the crucial score: a two-yard pass from Kolb to Andre Roberts. Arizona got after Brady with four rushers -- he has long admitted that's an Achilles' heel -- and covered with seven. And after the Patriots drew within two, safety Kerry Rhodes broke up a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Statements, all of them.
"It really is nuts," Kolb said. "It seems to be just our vibe -- as soon as you think you get in a rhythm or as soon as things are done, then something sparks it up. The last 10 to 11 games have been going our way and hopefully they continue to do that."
We all forgot about the Cardinals, it seemed, after their horrific 1-6 start last year. Never mind that they went 7-2 the rest of the way. We completely ignored the fact that they ranked seventh in sacks last year, for instance.
But we can't overlook them now. If coach Ken Whisenhunt gets decent quarterback play, Arizona can be a playoff team.
What to make of Greg Schiano's last stand?
I haven't been shy about the respect I have for Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. I believe in what he's building in Tampa Bay, and considering the mess that locker room was when he arrived, Schiano is the perfect man for the job. The college spirit that he honed at Rutgers -- being a teacher first -- will work wonders.
That said, it's fair to think about whether some methods get lost in translation. The late-game brouhaha in a 41-34 loss to the New York Giants is one example. Schiano's Bucs attempted to swat at the ball while the Giants were kneeling to preserve a dramatic, come-from-behind win, and the result was that a player dove at Eli Manning's feet. That prompted calls that it was "cheap" from Manning and many others.
It's what left coach Tom Coughlin red-faced and angry when he should have been celebrating with his team. Asked about it after the game, when the controversy was in full bloom, Schiano did not distance himself from his ways.
"I don't know if that's not something that's done in the National Football League, but what I do with our football team is, we fight until they tell us, 'Game over,' " Schiano said. "There's nothing dirty about it and there's nothing illegal about it."
The reality is, Schiano's point about never giving up has gotten lost. It is important, and his team will need to fight, this year and always. But there is a time to fight and a time to take a loss, tip your helmet and move on. The symbolic point of making the most of every single second is not as important as the real point of preserving the health of the multimillion-dollar assets of another team. It's just fair play. One can only imagine Manning stepping wrong and suffering an injury during the scramble. The outrage would have been real and warranted.
In short, there is nothing wrong with knowing when you are beaten, showing respect to your opponent, and vowing to fight another day. It's one view Schiano might have to adopt.
What the heck to make of the Seahawks?
I admit, I'm perplexed. I thought the Dallas Cowboys would roll over the Seattle Seahawks, a week removed from dropping the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. And I figured the Seahawks would succumb, like they did against Arizona in the opening week.
How wrong was I? Dallas laid an egg after traveling all the way up north, making everyone question why they jumped on that Cowboys bandwagon so early. And the Seahawks emerged with a 27-7 win that was every bit as decisive as the score indicated.
What makes the Seahawks worth watching isn't the play of Wilson, though I do support my fellow short people. It's that they are tough as nails. It's difficult to measure how valuable that can be. When they needed to put away the Cowboys in the third and fourth quarters, they buckled up and pounded them.
In the third quarter, Seattle jumped to a 20-7 lead with an eight-play, 90-yard drive that included six rushes for 58 yards, eventually scoring on a 22-yard pass from Wilson to Anthony McCoy. In the fourth quarter came the clincher.
Needing 83 yards for a score, Seattle burned a whopping seven minutes and three seconds off the clock with a gut punch of a drive. There were eight rushes for 44 yards. Just pounding it.
"For us to put together that kind of game and finish in the second half so aggressively and so tough," coach Pete Carroll said, "I'm really proud of that. That's the way we'd like to do it."
The NFC West was supposed to be a cakewalk for the San Francisco 49ers. Now? Not so much. Suddenly, it's shaping up to be a tough, hard-nosed, deep division from top to bottom.
Some rapid-fire takes:
» The New York Jets were playing without star cornerback Darrelle Revis in their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that hurt. But is that why they scored just 10 points while quarterback Mark Sanchez went just 10-for-27 for 138 yards? When you can't run it or throw it consistently, you have problems. More than Tim Tebow can solve.
» Whoa, Kansas City. How did everyone's AFC sleeper reach such depths? Three quarters into what would be an ugly 35-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs were behind, 35-3. Is it time Romeo Crennel, respected defensive guru, stops coordinating the defense?
» Speaking of the Bills ... How did C.J. Spiller become their best player? I don't know, but he did. Two touchdowns and 123 yards rushing on just 15 carries. He has 29 totes in two games, and he leads the NFL with 292 rushing yards. Last year, he didn't eclipse that mark until the Dec. 11 game against the San Diego Chargers -- in Week 14!
» If a child wants to learn about the principles of football, the 49ers are the team to watch. Does anyone block like they do? While receiver Michael Crabtree earns credit for converting a late third-and-14, running back Frank Gore's nasty block was what sprung him. One wonders how coach Jim Harbaugh gets everyone to participate.
» The Carolina Panthers had a huge win over the New Orleans Saints, and Panthers star Cam Newton had 33 touches. You have to go with your best player when it counts. But for how many more games can Newton handle getting 13 rough-and-tumble carries?
» It doesn't look like the Minnesota Vikings will win a ton of games this year, but the positives are emerging regarding quarterback Christian Ponder. The second-year signal-caller led another fourth-quarter comeback -- although this one fell short -- and the Vikes seem to have a solid building block. If only the team could grow older faster.
» Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush was crazy when he said he wanted to lead the NFL in rushing. Right? Totally. Except he's now second with 241 yards, heading into Monday night's action. Suddenly, not so crazy.
» Consider me on board with the Ravens' no-huddle offense, especially with how much better it makes the big-armed Flacco. You have to figure most teams won't pressure Baltimore like the Eagles did. And I just don't understand the cries to get Rice more involved. He did, after all, have 16 carries, six receptions and 152 total yards. That's a solid workload.
» Who in the world is Dante Rosario? Why did he have three touchdowns for San Diego? And how do the Chargers beat the Tennessee Titans by 28 without Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews? Watch out! They're drawing us in again ...
» As of Monday morning, 19 teams are 1-1. We don't know anything yet.
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